22 November 2014

Movie Parallels: "Black Narcissus" (1947) vs. "The Nun's Story" (1959)


The sexual tension between David Farrar's caretaker, Mr. Dean, and Deborah Kerr's Sister Clodagh in "Black Narcissus" (1947) and Peter Finch's Dr. Fortunati and Audrey Hepburn's Sister Luke in "The Nun's Story" (1959), respectively, is to cut in. Wouldn't you agree? 

I couldn't help but noticing that, in general, some very masculine-looking men have been chosen to star opposite Deborah and Audrey in their nun-versions, besides David Farrar and Peter Finch, such as Robert Mitchum ("Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison", 1957) and Sean Connery ("Robin and Marian", 1976), respectively. Not to forget Richard Burton opposite a very reluctant 'nun-in-hiding', Joan Collins, in "Sea Wife" (1957), though I never really got what that film was about.  I mean, even the so very distinguished, strict and regally handsome Christopher Plummer looked positively dishy in "The Sound of Music" (1965), even though Julie wasn't even in her nun's habit! I can't think of more virile men starring opposite these angelic beauties, and it's actually funny that this seems to be somewhat necessary in order to make out their opposite positions. And though Bing Crosby never exuded this virile masculinity (quite the opposite really) he was perhaps all the more perfectly fitted as a Father and a holy man opposite Ingrid Bergman's serene, beautiful nun in "The Bells of St. Mary" (1945). But I'll leave that for you to judge. 

However, sexual tension doesn't have to be overtly present through bodily appearance nor does it have to have significant signs like winking or flirty eyes or anything the flirting experts (do they even exist??) are saying. To me, it can be much more suggestive and thus all the more powerful. It can come from the roller-coaster rides of the usual love-hate-relationships and the demonstrative behavior that comes with more or less consciously denying their true feelings about each other; misunderstandings, prejudices, bantering, disagreements, etc.. Sometimes expressed through screaming and shouting, sometimes through silence and the inability to express feelings in words. Not always the whole 'opposites attract' thing (I'm not a big believer in that, though it sounds romantic in a faraway world or time) but more complicated than that, and that's what makes it interesting! I mean, if you look more closely at the photos above with Peter (Dr. Fortunati) and Audrey (Sister Luke) standing opposite each other, you get what I mean, right? Or is it just me who reads them as sexually tensed? We could call it strained all we like, but in the end isn't there something else? I could watch those scenes again and again. Of course, they are desirable; it's like watching the wolf and the lamb trying to work together - more or less unwillingly, despite being undeniably attracted to each other. We almost want these pristine women to fall for these men's spell, but then again every fibre in our bodies says it would undermine the very work these women have chosen to do; almost a disgrace to their very identities as women.

But is this sexual tension just a thing when there are nuns involved in films? The idea that the women need to be beautiful, almost looking like from Heaven sent themselves, and the men purely earthly, with an almost animalistic rawness added to their personas? And that these women must now struggle with their purity in all this 'dirt' that the men bring in? Or that the 'dirt' binds the women to earth? I don't know if it's that biblical or not; after all, women were supposed to be the 'bad thing' in that sense, right? Yet, here it's rather the men that have been made 'the forbidden fruit'; the temptation, the sin. It sure paints men and women as two different species. Or does it? Furthermore, why can't these virile men be priests and monks as well? Does their 'animalistic, sexualized nature' stand between them and a religious, ascetic life, raised above sin? An interesting book has been written about the subject, called Veiled Desires: Intimate Portrayals of Nuns in Postwar Anglo-American Film by Maureen Sabine and may give a more developed insight into this question.

For one thing, nuns and monks, life in monasticism and asceticism have always fascinated those on the outside. To give up and abstain from worldly pleasures and exchange it solely for an obedient, religious life is almost unfathomable - especially today, in a world so secularized and a generation so narcissistic that the mere thought of some people willingly giving up their SELF for GOD (though the one doesn't necessarily exclude the other) is absurd. But also fascinating, almost admirable, if it didn't come with so many skeletons in the cupboards. Lately with a severe domino effect, as horrific stories of abuse in all kinds of shades have emerged from the history of the Catholic Church; for example the Magdalene asylums (seriously, you'll not believe it when you read about them, but the fact that it DID happen is even more unbelievable!), giving the Church all but a nice reputation - if it ever had one to begin with. I hardly pity 'them' but religion is basically a tough nut to crack when it comes to 'who has the most blame or guilt?'. It's just like war; no one ever comes out a winner or a saint in the end. 

But back to these - basically representative - white, angelic nuns portrayed on film. How do they stand in all this, one could ask? Nowhere, perhaps. Everywhere, maybe. Yet, they represent a duality in the sense of being a woman; of  love, of compromise and of sacrifice in more ways than one, and the strive to achieve something in this world ... well, there's more than one analogy to transport to our modern day world. And if you strip these women figuratively and literally of their veils and habits, their churches and crucifixes, and give them modern clothes and objects, the universality of their struggles and doubts still stand out. 

Furthermore, their beauty; their (repressed? Undermined?) sexual attractiveness: The mystery that women should want to hide such beauty has caused much confusion for men and women alike and not only because of narrow-minded, sexist prejudice, vanity complexes or feminist assertiveness. If you think of how women has been portrayed throughout history in art, literature and film, you'll realize women really have been portrayed as the big mystery, 'the Otherness', ever since the Bible blamed the woman for the Fall of Man. Just think of femme fatales in film noirs, or the sex symbols or any stereotypical category women has been put in, or rather locked in. I'm not saying men haven't been through categorization throughout time as well, but heaven knows it hasn't been quite the same! One major, endured taboo men might have the claim on is the portrayal of homosexuality, especially on film, since masculinity always has been asserted as something solely one-sided for some reason (heterosexual, tough, brutal, virile, strong, unimpressed etc.) and femininity after all was allowed more obscure and ambiguous exploration on that matter (though they were at most repressed and not nearly explored enough out in the open).
Well, that's a sidetrack.

All in all, it's the classic set-up of contrasts: The pious, virtuous, obedient, but nonetheless beautiful women of God placed in strange, exotic surroundings, opposite the spirit of maleness embodied in the tall, dark and handsome men with a streak of roguish charm and insolence to serve as a constant temptation; to shake the nuns' faith and innocence and somehow crack the shell of perfect composure. It remains on the surface a clash of beliefs, human conditions and dichotomies, such as religion vs. secularism, Heaven vs. Earth, harmony vs. disharmony, civilization vs. animalism, abstinence vs. hedonism, mind vs. body, female vs. male. Their symbolic beliefs and conditions conveyed through their contrasting postures throughout the films as seen in the above pictures: The nuns' poised, steadfast stances and the men's relaxed, suggestive poses. But in the end it comes down to what we cannot deny we all share and what cannot be separated or put into categories such as feelings, emotions, sensations, and all in all, the soul. 

But this set-up, of course, also gives away for the perfect fantasy and basic curiosity to be outlived; that of nuns or ascetics being strange, secluded and unyielding creatures separated from the common man and devoid of all human sins and desires that everyone else give away to. What happens when they are challenged - when they're pulled out of their natural environment and put into a new one? How strong are they truly in their faith then? Aren't they humans, too, after all? Made of flesh and blood and bone like everybody else? What happens when faced with those elements they have learned to resist for so long no matter what? And what, in particular, makes young, beautiful girls give up worldly goods, pleasures and vanity and turn to asceticism when they could have everything in the world - and then some? How can such a young girl be so sure of such a life-changing decision and never be in doubt - even when the opportunity of love, a worldly not godly love, arrives?

The almost ethereal beauty, specifically a beauty of innocence, of both Deborah Kerr and Audrey Hepburn made them perfect for the roles of these young nuns (more than once in both of their careers); so committed to their faith and ideals they could be angels themselves, and yet so human that they can't help wavering in their faith, being conflicted when faced with real life or new surroundings, or being drawn to even the smallest of worldly pleasures which they then punish themselves for, almost inhumanly so. And by doing so they left a mark in us and made us ponder upon the power of faith and the individual human sacrifices for a greater good; a greater good that perhaps is good in theory or in thought - and to some extent in practice - but in the end may not be that great a good (at least not for everyone) - and that human weakness isn't that black and white, after all.

On that note, the suggestive modes of eroticism and human desires and/or weaknesses in both films seem all the more palpitating in subtext; that which isn't verbalized or confronted directly but remains unfulfilled and strained (and even strenuous) for the characters involved as well as the audience. Of course, the innocent, covered-up beauty of Deborah or Audrey and the roguish, bared charm of David or Peter who bodily dominates the pictures, oozing of rugged masculinity opposite these waif-like creatures of God creates an immediate, palpitating sexual tension. But it also forms a question of deeper feelings that may or may not exist or be shared, but which they and we, the viewers, both know cannot come true either way. None of them act on their feelings in the end and it wouldn't have been the great stories or films we know today if they had - mainly because we remember them for this particular unspoken, 'unconsummated' tension. And it doesn't make their possible feelings 'speak' any less or be any less true. On the contrary. And that's why I think these films stand out so significantly in our memory, despite the melodrama or the banality one could claim is being conveyed.

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